Lisbon: top 10 dining gems
“I hear horror stories about food in Portugal. Everything is made with bacalhau and I can’t tolerate that fish,” so said one of my guest reviewers recently, when I mentioned my plans to visit Lisbon. I’ve heard this type of commentary so many times.
The perception of a Portuguese pantry is one that does indeed boast bacalhau (cod that is either fresh, or dried and salted), but also piri piri (chilli spice), chargrilled sardines, pasteis de nata (custard tarts) and port. However, I spent four days in Lisbon recently and only two of these ingredients found their way on to my plate, thankfully.
Portuguese cuisine has so much more diversity to offer. Seafood is prolific – from prawns, glorious, giant carabineros included – and clams, to turbot and red emperor. Cured meats, fresh acorn-fed pork and suckling pig. Unpasteurised cheeses, typically made from ewe’s or goat’s milk. The light, refreshing and often fizzy vinho verde.
Every meal I ate, from casual taverns to high-end restaurants, was well executed and full of flavour. OK, that’s partly thanks to religious research and recommendations from Portuguese locals on social media in Dubai in advance. If not, you’ll end up eating in tourist tat. So here, with this round-up, I give you FooDiva’s top 10 dining gems in Lisbon.
In addition, thanks to a recommendation from guest reviewer, Mr Man in the White Hat (his culinary round-up is here), I booked a walking food tour organised by Philomena, the owner of Eat Drink Walk (photo above left). Not only did she showcase best-in-class cuisine, but she took us to some of Lisbon’s landmarks and miradors. I booked the gourmet experience in the Chiado district, however she offers a number of additional options.
- Mar ao Carmo – seafood restaurants are abundant in Lisbon. I picked a relatively new opening for its terraced seating on one of the city’s many squares, Largo do Carmo. Ask the waiter to recommend seafood that is in season. Interestingly even though sardines are very much in season now, none of the restaurants we tried served them, even though we spotted them in the fish market. Apparently the catch this year is not as good. We ordered the prawns and clams to start with (both cooked in an addictively delicious buttery garlic sauce), followed by grilled turbot – a generous portion easily shared. On the same square sits Carmo restaurant, which we tried the following day on our food tour and boasts similar dishes. Another fish tavern that came highly recommended by locals and Anthony Bourdain was Cervejaria (aka beer house) Ramiro.
- A Taberna da Rua das Flores – a cosy and charming no-reservations joint, only slightly larger than a hole-in-the-wall. Recommended by many chefs. Arrive early for lunch or dinner and then you won’t have to wait for a table. The blackboard-only menu of Portuguese tapas dishes changes daily. Some of the most flavoursome comfort food I tasted in Lisbon.
- Tagide Wine & Tapas Bar – a more formal tapas affair with stunning views across the city and the castle. The rosemary-infused chorizo arrived flamed and was excellent – as were the bacalhao croquettes (yes I quite like cod). We were still bursting from the afternoon’s food tour so we only ordered a few dishes. Next door is its sister fine dining restaurant of the same name. Another wine bar option with good food is the uninspiringly named By The Wine, but the wine bottle ceiling is anything but boring.
- Confraria LX – Japanese cuisine and specifically sushi restaurants like Confraria, which happened to be located in our boutique hotel, fascinate Lisbon. It’s the fresh seafood on the doorstep that makes Japanese such a compelling choice. Fusion rarely impresses me, but here it worked. The white fish ceviche and salmon sushi roll was a clever, well-executed idea.
- Sol e Pesca – only the Portuguese can get away with a restaurant that ONLY serves tinned seafood – think sardines and tuna and so on – with the odd garnish. Good revenue margins I expect! You can also buy some to take home. If nothing else, the wonderful retro packaging will appeal. Interesting concept, but not my personal cup of tea. When I dine out, I want to try food I wouldn’t eat at home.
- Belcanto – boasting two Michelin stars and a no 78 World’s 50 Best ranking, you need to book well in advance. I tried a couple of months before my trip and only managed to score a lunch reservation. The experience is formal with both tasting menus and a la carte options by chef patron and Portuguese restaurateur Jose Avillez. Modern Portuguese dishes tell a story, like giant carabineros sprinkled with rosemary ash; a ‘dip into the sea’ with sea bass and seaweed; red mullet with ‘Lisbon’s sidewalk stones’; and suckling pig belly and crackling. Expensive by Portuguese standards, but most definitely worth a meal. Otherwise Jose has many other more affordable restaurants in Lisbon you may like to try.
- Mercado da Ribeira – a traditional food market sits next to a plush ‘food court’ showcasing dozens of stalls from Time Out Lisbon’s favourite restaurants. So you’re guaranteed high quality cuisine in a casual environment. What a brilliant concept! Plenty of produce for sale too. I brought back some tinned gourmet fish from Conserveira de Lisboa, an 86-year old institution with its original store still standing – and a couple of small wheels of delicious azeitao from the cheesemonger, an unpasteurised ewe’s milk cheese that is so ripe it melts on the spot.
- The Insolito – an elevator in the rather drab Independente hotel rattled us up to a rooftop bar and restaurant, but that’s all part of its charm. Perched high up on one of Lisbon’s seven hills, the views across to the castle and the river were breathtaking. Arrive early to grab a pew on the terrace. We only stayed for cocktails, but the menu looked impressive.
- Manteigaria Camoes – one of the world’s most famous sweets is Portuguese. The pastel de nata, otherwise known as a custard tart, sprinkled with cinnamon and powdered sugar. You will find these everywhere in Lisbon, but the quality is far ranging. The best are, arguably, found in Belem, a parish of Lisbon, and home to the Jeronimos Monastery where you can buy them from a bakery operated by the monks (expect to queue). Philomena (from Eat Drink Walk) prefers the custard tarts from a pastry shop in the heart of Lisbon’s Chiado district, Manteigaria. I tried one straight out of the oven. If you like custard, you’ll wolf it down, and will beg for more, like our group did. I’ll be honest, I took a bite, for the sake of trying, but am not a fan.
- Porto de Santa Maria – Cascais is a suburb of Lisbon, a 45-minute drive west along the Atlantic coast. Known for its superior freshly caught seafood, many restaurants dot the coastline. Our pick, Porto Santa Maria, dished up some glorious fish porn – traditional Portuguese style, oven-baked red emperor. Seafood croquettes and sheep’s milk cheese with bread were automatically served to nibble on, but note you will be charged for these. We combined Cascais, with a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage town of Sintra overflowing with whimsical 19th century palaces.
WHERE TO STAY
- LX Boutique Hotel – I happened upon this charming boutique hotel whilst researching a few boutique hotel websites. In the heart of the triangle that makes up the Chiado, Baixa and Cais do Sodre districts, you couldn’t ask for a more central location. Lisbon is a city of seven hills and we walked everywhere, only once catching the funicular and electric tuk-tuk (such fun!) It’s a tram city too. Free Wi-Fi, room included. Pasteis de nata and port on tap all day. Breakfast was served as an intimate buffet in Confraria (see above). The staff were super friendly and eager to help – as an example they went out of their way to assist when our luggage didn’t arrive with us. I won’t be flying Brussels Airlines ever again (our previous destination). Note, Emirates flies direct twice daily from Dubai.
I have many more recommendations that we couldn’t squeeze in to our four day visit so that’s an excuse to return. My guest reviewer is now convinced, and has booked her own trip to Lisbon.
Do you have any other dining suggestions to share?
— FooDiva (@FooDivaWorld) July 11, 2016